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What Latter-day Saints get wrong about the ‘Great Apostasy’

New BYU publication explores the evolution of ancient Christianity and how the primitive church is the same — and different — from the modern LDS faith.

"St. Paul Preaching at Athens," 1516 by Raphael.

Latter-day Saints generally believe that Jesus established a church during his ministry, but after the death of his apostles, that body fell away from its gospel foundation due to what is called “the Great Apostasy.”

Many have come to think that God withdrew from the world at that time and remained distant through the Dark Ages until 1830, when Christ’s church was “restored” to its original form in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

That is an overly simplistic, if not completely false, narrative, about early Christians, according to a new book of essays, “Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints,” from the Maxwell Institute at church-owned Brigham Young University.

“The narrative of widespread apostasy ignores evidence that good Christians continually served each other and worshipped God throughout the history of Christianity,” Jason R. Combs, who teaches religious education at BYU, writes in his introduction. “Rather than dismissing entire epochs as corrupt or identifying which forms of ancient Christianity are most true, today we work to understand ancient Christians on their own terms.”

The volume is a “bold endeavor,” says Michael Austin, a Latter-day Saint author and editor in Indiana.

It is “the first book by and for Latter-day Saints that presents the first generations of Christians after Christ,” says Austin, who reviewed the work for By Common Consent, “as something other than evidence of a Great Apostasy or proof that the world needed a restoration.”

Indeed, the book’s editors — including Combs, Mark D. Ellison, Catherine Gines Taylor and Kristian S. Heal — have a lofty mission: to help fellow Latter-day Saints see ancient Christians as their spiritual ancestors and to connect with other believers.

When Latter-day Saints speak with other Christians, Combs says in an interview, “we often talk past each other — we have a different religious vocabulary. Becoming more familiar with our shared ancient Christian history will enable us to communicate better with other Christians today and understand better what truly makes Latter-day Saints unique.”

This book is “an act of devotion,” he writes, “an act of turning our hearts to our spiritual fathers and mothers so that we can learn to love and appreciate them.”

Grasping history

(AP) Martin Luther provided the intellectual underpinning for the Reformation. This picture shows him in his study.

History shows that Latter-day Saints did not originate the idea of a Great Apostasy but rather inherited it from Protestants.

It started with the concept of the Dark Ages, developed in the 1400s with European humanists, Combs says. “Early Protestant reformers then adopted this notion in their critique of the Catholic Church — they argued that the church had fallen into darkness, that there was this ‘Great Apostasy.’”

But Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, never used that term. (Some point to a later Latter-day Saint general authority, B.H. Roberts, as the one who first promoted the apostasy narrative.)

Smith did say God told him in his “First Visionthat all Christian creeds were “an abomination,” Combs writes, but that should not imply that there was “mass corruption in the ancient church or a complete loss of everything that was good.”

Better knowledge of ancient Christians would free today’s Latter-day Saints from spending their time “trying to prove other churches and religions wrong or apostate.”

Did Christ even create a church?

"The Anointing of the Body of Christ," 1658 by Franciszek Lekszycki.

Did Jesus during his mortal ministry and immediately after his resurrection gather disciples and give some of them power and authority? New Testament writers, Combs says, “would answer absolutely, yes.”

If, by “church,” it means regular weekly meetings in which followers of Jesus gathered to celebrate their shared faith and a symbolic meal, he says, “then, once again, the answer would be mostly, yes.”

In Jesus’ lifetime, he and his disciples regularly attended the synagogue, Combs says. “When his followers were later excluded from the synagogue, they began holding their own regular meetings.”

But did the church change from its first century to its second and third centuries?

“Absolutely,” the editor declares. “And so has The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

So how is the current church, according to its Articles of Faith, “the same organization that existed in the primitive church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth”?

These Latter-day Saint scholars all believe that “some things are the same in the [church] today as they were in antiquity,” Combs says. “For instance, we affirm that we have the same power and authority of Jesus Christ. But it is certainly not essential to our doctrine that everything be exactly the same.”

‘Restored church’

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the Rome Italy Temple Visitors' Center. Statues of Christ and his original apostles are behind them.

After all, Smith’s revelations gathered in the church’s Doctrine and Covenants never speak explicitly of a “restored church.”

When Latter-day Saints use “the unscriptural phrase, it should be understood as shorthand for the restorations the Doctrine and Covenants does address,” Combs writes, “namely, the bestowal of priesthood power, authority, and keys associated with making sacred covenants, establishing Zion, gathering scattered Israel on both sides of the veil… and binding up all dispensations in preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.”

By seeing the Utah-based faith as “merely a reinstitution of something that already existed 2,000 years ago,” he writes, “we unnecessarily limit the power, scope, and purposes of God’s work for us in this final dispensation.”

Thus, it is unreasonable to assume that positions and roles that existed in the ancient church, he says, are also present in the current iteration, or vice versa.

And nowhere is that clearer than in the role of women.

Paul’s women

"The Holy Women at the Sepulchre," circa 1611-1614 by Peter Paul Rubens.

For the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, Christianity threw out all the old distinctions, Ariel Bybee Laughton, a Latter-day Saint historian, says on The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast. “There’s no slave or freeman anymore. There’s no Jew or Greek. There’s no male or female.”

It is striking how many women Paul “writes to, addresses or praises for their good works,” says Laughton, an independent scholar in Houston, who writes about ancient Christianity and gender in the BYU volume. “He gives us the impression of a really bright, big community of engaged active women in early Christianity, just doing missionary work, teaching, preaching, running churches in their homes, just prophesying and doing these amazing things at that time.”

Most historians do not believe Paul’s edict for women to be “silent in churches,” she says, were his words but likely added later.

Several of Paul’s examples, especially older women, were patrons with money and nice houses, Laughton says, who would invite congregations into the house, and then lead them.

When the church created an institution, though, it moved from the private sphere of homes into the public, which was men’s realm, she says. It became inappropriate for women “to participate in the ways they had been participating before.”

As to the modern church, the researcher urges the faith’s leaders “to pray for additional prophetic revelation,” Laughton writes in her essay’s conclusion, “to validate and increase women’s leadership and participation.”

The ancient church, she says, could provide a compass.